When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email, not a text, but an honest-to-goodness, pen-on-paper missive of a full page or more, folded, sealed, stamped, and placed in an actual—not virtual—mailbox. When, for that matter, was the last time you received a letter?
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
That's a pity. Letters have worth far beyond the paper they're written on, offering intimate musings and glimpses of everyday life that can't be found in brief dispatches or even impassioned Facebook posts.
"A letter is, after all, a piece of writing in which we give ourselves the space to reflect—to distill our emotions and reactions, to choose the things that are important and flesh them out in detail," writes Cristen Hemingway Jaynes in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine. "Without the more intimate form of writing letters, I drift apart from those who are not in my daily life."
Reflecting on her communications with one friend who still writes letters but never sends emails, Jaynes observes, "I know more about her thoughts and her relationship with the world—how she is actually doing—than I do about most of my other friends."
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
For instance: "I'm feeling very anxious about my entomology project and I want to make sure I have something done before Dr. Hurley gets back. I'm trying to get my equipment together this week so I can start the project next week. So far my equipment is a cake pan with the bottom cut out of it and a sieve. I have fears that the whole project is going to be about that sophisticated. I'm very nervous about it. I will enclose some of my bitten off fingernails if I remember."
Segues were seemingly unnecessary. I followed a discussion of travel plans with this news flash about my cat: "Ooooh, the most creepy thing just happened. Zeke has been sitting next to me on the couch, watching the birds outside and chattering his teeth at them. Then he lay down and went to sleep and chattered his teeth in his sleep. I CAN'T STAND IT!!!"
Some letters included funny drawings; others carried silly variations of my return address: "Sunset Avenue Circus Museum," "Sunset Avenue Center for the Development of Better Sleep Habits."
Reading the Laurel letters inspired me to haul out a box of letters that friends and family members had written to me over the years. Just the act of taking the letters out of the box gave me a deeper satisfaction than I've ever gotten from an email popping into my inbox. Seeing my brother's artsy, backhand cursive trailing across an envelope; recognizing a friend's old return address, noticing the stamp she selected, the kind of paper she wrote on, all felt like little homecomings. And the contents of those letters took me to times, places, and crannies of my friends' hearts and souls I couldn't have visited—and revisited—any other way.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Though very maladjusted and in a state totally unfit for normal upright society except for that of Alaska, which I hate the city part of, I'm alive and back in Anchorage," he wrote. He went on to recount seeing hundreds of caribou, five grizzlies, two moose, and one gyrfalcon; tipping over twice, but righting himself before swamping his kayak; and sharing bowhead whale meat and blubber with local indigenous people on Barter Island.
Even accounts of my correspondents' less adventurous experiences were a treat to read. My friend Barry's dispatch from college in 1969 was just as keenly observed:
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
Old letters preserve daily details that now seem quaint. Writing in 1971 about her employment woes, my friend Wendy lamented "I really want to get out of the $1.65/hr range. It's a drag." In the same letter, she included sketches of a denim coat and paisley dress she'd managed to buy on those skimpy wages, and added, "I've ordered rain boots from Sears (pg. 555, Fall-Winter book, item 5, on sale for $8.94 in one of their sale books)."
Over the years I've sometimes chided myself for holding onto mementos like these old letters. But a single snowy afternoon spent reading them—even if that happens only once a decade—is more than worth the closet space my box of letters occupies. I'm reminded of how long my friendships have endured and how they've sustained me.
Letters enhance connection and contentment, to be sure, but they're also good for creativity.
"When I write longhand each pass of the ink on to paper is a physical creation. And as with sculpture, textiles, painting, and furniture, it contains remnants of myself," notes Jaynes, whose great-grandfather Ernest Hemingway was also an inveterate letter writer. "The exercise of writing, whether it be in the form of a letter or a story, is all good practice. As my great-grandfather demonstrated in his colorful letters to friends, there can be just as much creativity in letter writing as in any other form. Similar to freewriting exercises, writing a letter loosens the knots in neural pathways, leading to subjects and characters lying just below the surface."
I know it did for me. I learned to write largely by crafting letters to everyone from grandparents to pen pals with whom I connected through a kids' magazine.
After all I've said in praise of letters, you probably think I'm going to end this post with a pledge to write more of them. I could, but I know it would be a hollow promise. Truth is, I've never been that great a correspondent, even when letters were my main form of communication. I wrote tons of them, but I always seemed to have a stack of unanswered ones nagging at me (kind of like my email inbox these days).
So rather than make a promise I'm not likely to keep, I will resolve to keep writing an occasional letter, and I'll encourage you to do the same.
After all, as Hemingway once wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something."
Need more inspiration? Check out Letters of Note, a website that "offers an intimate window into history and the characters who shaped it."
Or write a letter to a stranger who could use an encouraging word. Find stories of deserving people, along with where to send letters, at More Love Letters.
Feeling a little (or a lot) weighed down lately? I know I have been. With dreadful things happening around the world, and many friends and family members facing difficult challenges, it's sometimes hard to find reasons to smile.
Yet even in rough times, a little levity can help us cope. In that spirit, I'm taking a look back at some of the funny and light-hearted things we've come across in our recent travels.
One way I amuse myself on long road trips is by collecting funny names of roads, businesses, and other points of interest. I don't do this in any organized way—I just scribble them down in whatever notebook I have at hand. It's a treat to come across those notations later, when I'm thumbing through the pages, looking for the name of a book someone mentioned or the phone number of a tradesman I saw on a street-corner sign, or whatever else I've stowed in the same notebook.
On our latest trip out west, we chuckled at a highway exit sign for Bad Route Road, and then laughed harder when we saw the next sign advising trucks to exit there. On the same stretch of Montana highway, we encountered Whoop-Up Creek Road. I guess if you make it through the Bad Route, you've got something to whoop about.
Some place names just make you wonder how they came by those monikers. Take Tongue River, for instance. Or Fourth of July Creek. I Googled that one while working on this piece and didn't find out the origins of the name, but I did discover author Smith Henderson's 2014 novel by the same name. Looks like another book worth jotting down in that little notebook and adding to my to-read list.
In Seattle, our friends Laurel and Darwin took us on a day trip to Kitsap Peninsula, which included a visit to a finger of land known as Point No Point. According to a source cited in Wikipedia, explorer Charles Wilkes gave the place its name because "it appears much less of a promontory at close range than it does from a distance." I don’t know about that, as I didn't view it from a distance (I didn't see the point--ha, ha), but I will say that there is a point to visiting Point No Point: seeing the oldest lighthouse on Puget Sound and enjoying the driftwood sculptures and furnishings that decorate the grounds.
On our drive back to Michigan, we saw other sights that made us smile.
In Kellogg, Idaho, there's a circular building topped with an oversized miner's helmet and lantern. Built in 1939, it was originally a roadside diner where workers from nearby lead and silver mines stopped for Coneys and beers. After a stint as a 1950s drive-in restaurant, it closed in 1963, but reopened in 1991 as a realty office, which is what it remains.
Even highway rest stops can serve up some smiles. Weary of construction delays toward the end of our travels last spring, we came across this jaunty fellow in one rest area.
And on our most recent trip, we encountered this frighteningly funny chap at a pit stop. Two truck drivers were preparing to station the skeleton at the controls of a piece of equipment they were transporting. They told me they planned to put a sign on Mr. Bones's back reading "I WAS TEXTING."
More merriment came from the names of businesses we passed along the way: Garden of Read'n bookstore in Missoula and Animal House Veterinary Hospital in Forsyth, Montana. Then there was the billboard that warranted a double take, with its ad for the Rock Creek Testicle Festival.
You know I had to look that one up! Turns out it's an annual event famous for dishing up the local delicacy known as Rocky Mountain oysters—breaded and deep-fried cattle testicles—and sponsoring such contests as the Undie 500 tricycle race. I should say it was an annual event, as the Testy Fest (motto: "Have a ball") was discontinued this year, following a series of incidents, including fatal crashes caused by festival-goers, in previous years.
The owner of the lodge that hosted the rowdy event for 35 years said attendance—which once numbered more than 10,000 people—also had been dropping, due at least in part to social media. Apparently not all attendees cared to have footage of their festival antics posted on Facebook.
Though I'm a big fan of festivals (read more about that here), I think this is one I'm not sorry to have missed. At this stage in life, I'm content to get my amusement from road signs and sights. And newspaper headlines, which are sometimes downright funny, but more often ironic in their placement.
One day, for instance, the front pages of Montana Standard and Great Falls Tribune were crowded with news of corruption and strife—a sheriff charged with felonies, nastiness between two state senate candidates—but anchored with a story bearing this headline: "Labyrinths across state bring peace, meditation."
Let's hope so.
What has tickled your funny bone lately?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.